President Obama’s Department of Agriculture Under Secretary Edward Avalos toured farms throughout Rhode Island on Friday to learn about local successful New England farming practices, making two stops in Middletown, along with stops in Portsmouth, Warwick and Cranston.
After a morning tour of Confreda Farm in Cranston and Goddard Park Farmers Market in Warwick, Avalos visited in Middletown around 12:30 p.m., where owner Jan Eckhart led a tour of the grounds under picture perfect skies among the blossoming apple, cherry, blueberry and peach orchards before a sit-down lunch of the farm café’s sandwich wraps, salads, farm-fresh pie and soft drinks inside Sweet Berry’s newly constructed multi-purpose room.
Later in the afternoon, Avalos' carefully scheduled tour was to take him to Escobar Dairy Farm in Portsmouth, before returning to Middletown for his final stop at on East Main Road with the Nunes family that has made the vineyard a success along the Coastal Wine Trail of Southern New England.
The Friday tours followed a special reception that took place Thursday at the Statehouse in Providence, where Avalos had met with farmers, leaders in economic development for the state’s agriculture industry and other Rhode Island dignitaries. Avalos was scheduled to return to Washington, D.C. on Saturday, he said, with much information gathered from the various farmers, partnerships and organizations from across Rhode Island that have helped make the state's local agriculture industry an expanding, growing business.
“I came here this week to congratulate the State of Rhode Island for a couple of things. Rhode Island leads the country in selling (farm-fresh produce) direct to schools, hospitals and restaurants,” Avalos said Friday, before touring Sweet Berry Farm. “The Obama Administration is particularly interested in the farms-to-schools program … We’d like to see if the successful program in Rhode Island can be a model for other communities across the country.”
Avalos, who grew up on a farm in Mesilla Valley in Southern New Mexico, explained that the closer look at Rhode Island’s farming partnerships ties in with efforts by the Obama Administration and the USDA to “revitalize America," because "helping the agriculture industry helps America.”
Avalos said many farmers in the northeast similarly face challenges of food safety, seasonality, and availability of crops, among other issues "that aren't always easy to overcome" in running successful farming businesses.
Eckhart, who also serves as chairman for the Rhode Island Agricultural Partnership, saw the under secretary's visit as a great opportunity for farmers throughout New England, because they all struggle with similar challenges and can learn from each other.
“I was glad to see he was coming to see what the New England farms were like, compared to some of the more expansive ones that are out in the Midwest and middle part of the country,” Eckhart said as the farm tour began to wind down and the entourage headed back inside the main building for lunch.
Joining the tour were Rhode Island Rural Development Council Executive Director Gerard N. Bertrand, Ken Ayars, chief of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) Division of Agriculture, DEM staff, representatives of the Rhode Island Dairy Cooperative and other farm organizations, and members of the Rhode Island Agricultural Partnership.
During the tour, Eckhart provided Avalos with a brief history of the farm, which started up in the early 1980s with strawberries. He also shared stories on particular crops, his knowledge of research and growing methods that made certain aspects of farming practices more successful over the years.
Eckhart also spoke to the importance of developing a partnership with the Aquidneck Land Trust (ALT) to preserve open space and helping to alleviate the farm’s tax burden years ago.
Locally, Sweet Berry Farm has become a model for “agritourism,” the increasingly popular business practice of drawing more visitors to farms to generate additional revenue streams beyond selling produce.
Eckhart spoke about the farm’s gradual metamorphosis over the years that eventually replaced the farm’s tents with the permanent building constructed seven years ago that houses the farm stand, café and store, as well as the brand-new multi-purpose community room constructed last fall.
Additionally, Sweet Berry Farm’s expansive lawn area that the ALT helped preserve is used for various outdoor cultural events, lectures, summer concerts and private parties such as weddings.
“More and more people want their weddings at farms. People are returning to the farms these days,” Eckhart said as the group strolled across the green lawn.